While there is no genuine debate to be had over whether anthropogenic climate change is occurring, our Stone Age minds might be trying to bargain our way out of it, new research suggests. This is causing many to do real damage to the environment even while trying to be eco-friendly.
Patrik Sörqvist, an environmental psychologist, and social psychologist Linda Langeborg, both from the University of Gävle in Sweden, have delved into the prehistoric mind, using an evolutionary approach, to help understand human interactions with the environment. Their primary focus is the reasoning behind consumer habits and their associated climate footprint.
Although some elements of evolutionary psychology remain controversial, there is general agreement that natural selection shaped human thought patterns or mental rules-of-thumb.
These are often designed to solve specific problems that reliably occurred in our evolutionary past. As such, they are not particularly well suited to modern environments, and often produce maladaptive behaviour. The founders of the discipline, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby once summed up the problem. “Our modern skulls house stone age minds,” they wrote.
Sörqvist and Langeborg argue in an article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that a cognitive relic of the past helps us to understand our current behaviour toward the climatic environment. Specifically, they argue that evolved rules-of-thumb that help us to navigate social exchange are now being misapplied to the environment.
Reciprocity is a major factor in social exchange: if we give something, we expect something in return. Giving or taking too much, or too little, upsets the balance and causes negative emotional reactions.
With social relations, however, we can make up for these transgressions through compensation of some kind, which will restore the moral balance and ensure harmonious social relations.
The authors claim that we are also trying to strike similar bargains with the climatic environment through personal habits and consumer activity.
“But when applied to climate change,” says Sörqvist, “this social give-and-take thinking leads to the misconception that ‘green’ choices can compensate for unsustainable ones.”
The researchers term this belief “climate compensation”.
It leads us to think, for example, that buying extra eco-friendly items in the weekly shop is either climate neutral or even reduces personal climate footprint.
“Meanwhile, the best thing for the environment would of course be for us to consume less overall,” says Sörqvist.
He adds that it also leads people to “think that they can justify jetting abroad for vacation because they have been cycling to work; or take longer showers because they’ve reduced the water temperature.”
But, he notes, “you can’t kiss and make up with the environment”.
The researchers have some suggestions to help us overcome this psychological quirk. They include legislation to change the marketing of green or eco-friendly products to promote the idea that such things are ‘less bad’ for the environment, rather than ‘good’ for it.
Another suggestion is allowing consumers to access carbon footprint estimates associated with products they purchase.
“We should give consumers immediate feedback on how much ‘eco-labelled’ and other products add to the environmental impact of what they are buying,” suggests Langeborg.
“For example, self-scanning systems in supermarkets could provide customers with an accumulated carbon footprint estimate of their shopping basket.”
Stephen Fleischfresser is a lecturer at the University of Melbourne's Trinity College and holds a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science.
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