We’re blind to our collective behaviour
If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then our approach to sustainability fits the bill. There is an assumption that all we need to do to create sustainable societies that mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis is to make slight changes to society and the economy while essentially continuing to behave how we’ve always done. When looking at the overwhelming amount of research that consistently shows we’re dangerously close to breaching tipping points, it’s plain to see the approach isn’t working. How, as a collective society, are we so accepting of this state of affairs when we know we’re veering towards catastrophe? It turns out that our psychology is working against us — here are seven reasons why.
1. Cognitive dissonance
When we’re faced with information that conflicts with a firmly held belief, it creates discomfort and leads to our truth defence mechanism, cognitive dissonance, kicking in. Rather than accept the facts, we interpret the information to make us even more convinced of our preconceived beliefs. Even when that information so obviously contradicts our beliefs.
Cognitive dissonance is why climate actions appear counter-intuitive. It’s why governments are setting targets to achieve net-zero while subsidies for oil companies have surged to $7 trillion. It’s why oil companies are brazen enough to set net-zero targets while making no efforts to phase out their product, one of the main reasons we’re failing to keep on track to achieve net-zero. It’s why retail brands like Shein appear to be embracing sustainability while they continue to embrace fast fashion, the antithesis of sustainable living. Each decision undermines our ability to create sustainable societies, but vested interests have to believe that salvation lies on a path well tread because they have everything to lose if the need for social transformation is widely recognised.
2. Protective cognition
Protective cognition, a term coined by the legal scholar Dan Kahan, reinforces the effects of cognitive dissonance. Kahan argues people dismiss scientific evidence when the facts threaten their worldview. Protective cognition explains why climate denial is still alive and well. In a recent survey, 13 percent of Americans polled agreed with the statement that the climate is changing, “but human activity is not responsible at all”. Five percent of respondents said the climate was not changing at all.
3. Availability bias
In Don’t Even Think About It, George Marshall shows how our brains are hardwired to ignore the climate crisis. The psychological blockers that play a role in this process include availability bias, which disposes people to make conclusions based on the evidence at hand. This leads people to overestimate the dangers of recent events while disregarding threats posed by events they haven’t experienced.
4. The bystander effect
There’s also the influence of the bystander effect. This is where awareness of an issue leads people to look at others for social cues to help guide their response. Accounting for the nature of the climate crisis, it’s little wonder we’re hardwired to ignore it. The ecological crisis is different to any other because the crisis doesn’t feel like a crisis. So while most people are aware of global warming, when they scan others to guide their response, it’s to carry on as if nothing is happening.
5. Incapacitated by slow-moving threats
David Gilbert, a Professor of Psychology, argues that our long psychological evolution has prepared us to respond strongly to specific triggers. One such trigger is our response to abrupt changes. We are most sensitive to sudden relative changes and tend to ignore slow-moving threats.
The pandemic illustrates the dangers of slow-moving threats. Prior to Covid-19 turning our lives upside down, there had been countless warnings that it was only a matter of time before a pandemic would break out. At the beginning of 2019, the World Economic Forum wrote a white paper on pandemics, suggesting how vulnerable and ill-prepared the world was for one. When a pandemic did break out, governments were like rabbits in headlights; decision-making was haphazard, disjointed and confused.
That we’re triggered by sudden changes means we’re great at reacting to and solving problems when faced with imminent danger. We’re not so good at proactively preparing and preventing them from occurring, even when we know there is a high risk they will happen. The same principle applies to the climate crisis. Knowing there is a high possibility of catastrophic environmental changes in fifty years doesn’t trigger an abrupt response in the same way it would if lives were under imminent threat now. But the difference between not preparing for a pandemic and not overcoming the climate crisis is that as soon as the climate crisis feels like a crisis, we will face a tidal wave of problems that could overwhelm our capacity to respond effectively.
6. The power of self-interest
It seems deeply irrational that we continue making choices that drive us further down an unsustainable path, but that’s when looking at behaviour on a collective level. When drilling down to decision-making on an individual level, each person is motivated by self-interest. This is the problem alluded to by Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. If each person pursues short-term gain over the common good, each decision in isolation is perfectly rational.
There is no connection between my action and the monumental reaction taking place on a system-wide level because we can’t gauge how every decision, every action, and every purchase, combines to create giant consequences. It’s only when looking at the effects of billions of self-serving decisions that we see how we’re locking in devastating impacts.
7. Optimism bias
Humans tend to overestimate the likelihood of positive events happening and underestimate potential negative ones. Thinking positively is an evolutionary trait that allows us to envision possibilities and innovate to achieve that vision. Had the Wright Brothers believed they didn’t stand a chance of creating a machine that could fly, they would never have had the inclination to try.
Our current emissions trajectory means there is less than a five percent chance of keeping temperatures well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and less than one percent of reaching the 1.5°C Paris Agreement target. Optimism, when faced with those odds, is blind delusion. But the slow-moving nature of changes to bio-physical processes means the crisis is set up for optimists to feel optimistic. This optimism works to create complacency and a feeling that no matter how bad things get, everything will be okay in the end. Optimism makes calls for social transformation feel rather extreme when companies appear to be doing a fine job of solving environmental problems. Rather than a widespread need to instigate an emergency response, optimism bias means, collectively, we remain safe in some delusional comfort blanket that things aren’t going to be as bad as scientists claim.
Collapse is inevitable
Our psychology works to reinforce the problem trying to be solved while convincing us that the actions being taken are effective in overcoming the crisis. But fundamentally, the problem is that we’re dealing with the wrong crisis. The crisis is that capitalism, the preeminent global economic system that feeds into every aspect of our lives, is unsustainable by design. The ecological crisis is merely an outcome of the cause. It’s logical then that to overcome the problem, we need to focus on fixing the cause of the problem. But our psychology is working to prevent humanity from seeing what is staring us all in the face. And so we’re left with a bitter, unpalatable reality — we’ve made our bed — no amount of hope or optimism is going to do anything to stop the giant fireball we’re hurtling towards.